The symptoms of anxiety can have a significant impact on how a person behaves and goes about their daily life. The essence of anxiety is worrying about some potential threat. It is trying to cope with a future event that you think will be negative.
You do this by paying more attention to possible signs of potential threat, and looking internally to see whether you will be able to cope with that threat. When you notice your anxious symptoms, you think that you can’t cope with the situation, and therefore become more anxious.
How Avoidance Contributes to Anxiety
As your anxiety increases, you try to reduce the anxiety and prevent what you think might happen by avoiding the situation. If you cannot avoid the situation, then you use subtle avoidance to reduce the anxiety. For example, you may use certain rituals, like standing close to a door to make a quick escape. In some way, you might feel less anxious when you engage in avoidance behaviours.
However, when you have to deal with the situation the next time, you are less confident that you can cope with it because you avoided it the last time or become dependent on safety behaviours. So you feel more anxious. As a result, you avoid the situation or engage in subtle avoidance.
Safety Behaviours and Anxiety
If you feel anxious, or anticipate feeling anxious, it makes sense that you will do things to reduce your anxiety. In addition to avoidance and subtle avoidance, many people use “safety behaviours” to help cope with anxiety. These may include -
Using distraction to avoid feeling anxious or thinking about anxiety (e.g. always keeping busy or eliminating free-time)
Always having an exit plan for potentially-anxious situations
Making sure you have someone else with you.
Engaging in excessive research prior to taking a trip, starting a new job, buying something, all to ensure nothing will go wrong
These safety behaviours also play a part in maintaining the vicious cycle of anxiety. When you become dependent on them, it can be more distressing if one day they are not available to you.
Reversing the Vicious Cycle of Anxiety
Vicious cycles play an important role in maintaining anxiety. However, like the vicious cycle of depression, you can turn around this cycle to create a positive cycle that will help you overcome anxiety.
One important step in this cycle is gradually confronting feared situations. This will lead to an improved sense of confidence, which will help reduce your anxiety and allow you to go into situations that are important to you.
Use “graded exposure” by starting with situations that are easier for you to handle, then work your way up to more challenging tasks. This allows you to build your confidence slowly, to use other skills you have learned, to get used to the situations, and to challenge your fears about each situational exposure exercise. By doing this in a structured and repeated way, you have a good chance of reducing your anxiety about those situations.
Coping Skills: Breathing & Thinking Better
When you are gradually confronting feared situations, there will be a short term increase in anxiety. This is normal— everyone feels anxious about doing things they fear. The important thing to remember is that you can learn other skills as alternatives to avoidance and safety behaviours.
Breathing: Anxiety is often associated with fast, shallow breathing, which contributes to the physical sensation of anxiety. By slowing down your breathing and using calming and relaxation techniques, you can reduce your anxiety.
Thinking: There are many types of negative thoughts which are associated with anxiety, such as “I will not be able to cope” or “I must avoid this situation.” Learning to challenge these thoughts with more balanced ones can help to reduce the experience of anxiety.
Four Steps to Reversing the Vicious Cycle of Anxiety
1. Confront feared situations without aid of safety behaviours
2. Short term - slight increase in anxiety,
then a decrease in physical symptoms
and attention scanning
3. Use of coping skills, anxiety reduces
to manageable level
4. Greater belief in ability to
control own responses